On Christmas Eve millions of children will be dreaming about what Santa Claus will bring them the next morning. Naughty or nice, will it be stacks of presents under the tree or lumps of coal in stockings hung by countless fireplaces because of bad behavior?
On a different level, a geostrategic Santa Claus has left three offerings. A similar query applies. Will these offerings turn out to be the equivalent of presents and opportunities? Or will they be lumps of coal signifying bad things?
President Barack Obama has decided it is high time that the United States recognized Cuba. As this column has criticized the president more often than not, hooray and well done! Despite the brickbats and screams of protest by offended Republicans and others living in the past, that recognition is long overdue.
Rather than rewarding an authoritarian if not full-fledged communist state, recognition will prove in the best interests of both countries. That has happened twice before. The U.S. and China fought the Korean War to a bloody draw. Forty-two years ago, President Richard Nixon's watershed visit to Beijing changed that relationship forever.
Decades later, propelled by Vietnam War veterans John Kerry and John McCain, the U.S. recognized the country that defeated us in a war that claimed over 58,000 American lives. China, no matter whatever differences it may have with its neighbors or the U.S., Vietnam and the U.S. are better off for these rapprochements. The same outcome will apply to Cuba.
Second, is Russia and President Vladimir Putin's extraordinary three hour and seven minute annual press conference last week. Russia's man of the year for a record fifteenth time in a row--Stalin must be weeping--held forth on all manner of subjects from the economy to his love life. What has been missed so far in the reporting is that the authority and standing of Putin were severely challenged by many of the reporters and the tone and content of their questions.
The respect and awe that Putin once commanded was diminished. Russians, used to over seventy years of Soviet propaganda and pomp, are acutely aware and sensitive to these implicit interactions. Besides the economic hole Russia has dug for itself and the nonsensical timeframe of two year's Putin projected to correct that disaster, his image and credibility have been damaged.
Putin is caught in what Lenin called classic contradictions that in crisis will only worsen. He is overplaying the nationalist hand, one reason for his huge popularity to date. Likewise he is reaching too far ideologically in trying to restore Russian greatness. And his ability to manipulate the economy to pay for his other goals and to keep Russians content has been greatly weakened by incompetence on the part of his economic advisors, by the rapid decline in oil prices and sanctions.
In my latest book, A Handful of Bullets -- How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace -- I speculate over the prospect of a third Russian revolution. The first was in 1917 that established the Soviet Union; the second in 1989-90 that ended it. And the third may be the toppling of Vladimir Putin over the coming years. The point is that Putin is very vulnerable.
If President Obama is as bold and clever towards Russia as he was towards Cuba, now is the time to engage Putin. Sending a trusted envoy -- Henry Kissinger or Colin Powell come to mind -- who knows Putin and could negotiate an end to the Ukraine crisis and the standoff between Moscow and the rest of the world is needed. Otherwise, a wounded Putin could easily turn the bear he spoke of so lovingly in his press conference into a real beast menacing his neighbors.
Last and most tragically is Pakistan and the obscene murders of 150 school children in Peshawar. In a rational country, the time would have come for ending the threat posed by Taliban writ large. Because the political parties leading the country lack the stomach, backbone and brains to accomplish that task and because Pakistan has taken what could be an irreversible turn towards Islamic fundamentalism, this opportunity may be squandered.
Great rhetoric and promises for action will evaporate unless or until Pakistanis realize this is an existential moment and demand action. That may of course create the grounds for a change of government, something the U.S. will oppose. But if Pakistan is to emerge as a secure democracy, responses to Santa's offering must turn this tide and defeat Taliban of all stripes once and for all .